The American Indian

A Sioux Medicine Man

The name commonly applied to the people found by Columbus in America; by many authorities believed to have been the original native inhabitants. The politically correct term today is “Native American”. Given that this site is based on extensive original historical documentation, we use the term “Indian” as a standard.  This terminology is not meant to be disrespectful, but simply is the term that has been used in most of the historical documents which we present on this site.

These original Americans once inhabited the present United States from Coast to Coast. In manners, customs, and general features the difference between the Indians of the Gulf States and those of the shores of the Northern Lakes is scarcely perceptible; it is only by languages that they can be grouped into great families. East of the Mississippi there were not more than eight radically distinct languages, four of which are still in existence, while the others have disappeared.

Believing the earth to be a globe, Columbus expected to find India or Eastern Asia by sailing westward from Spain. The first land discovered by him—one of the Bahama Islands—he supposed to be a part of India, and he called the inhabitants Indians. This name was afterwards applied to all the nations of the adjacent islands and the continent.


There is no positive knowledge concerning the origin of these of American Natives; their own traditions widely vary, and conjecture is unsatisfying. Recent investigations favor a theory that, if they be not indigenous, they came from two great Asiatic families: the more northern tribes of our continent from the lighter Mongolians, who crossed at Bering Strait, and the more southerly ones, in California, Central and South America, from the darker Malays, who first peopled Polynesia, in the southern Pacific Ocean and finally made their way to our continent, gradually spreading over it from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Language fails to connect any of them with the Asiatic families, but their traditions, implements, and modes of life point to such a relationship. It has been suggested that the Mandans and Chinooks, who are almost white, are descendants of a Welsh colony said to have been lost in the wilds of North America 700 years ago.


There seems to be a physical identity of race throughout most of the continent. Their skin is generally of a dark reddish-brown, or cinnamon, color; they have long, black, and straight hair, prominent cheek-bones, and broad faces; eyes deep-set, full and rounded lips, broad and prominent noses, scanty beard; their heads are generally square, and their stature about the same as that of other races of the same latitude. Their muscular development is not great, and their hands and feet are small; their skin is thinner, softer, and smoother than that of Europeans; the expression of the men is often noble, and many of the women are handsome. Haughty in deportment, taciturn, stoical, cunning, persevering, brave and ferocious in war; cruel towards enemies and faithful towards friends; grateful for favors, hospitable and kind. Their mental temperament is poetic and imaginative in a high degree, and it is often expressed in great beauty and eloquence of language. The tribes south of California have always been noted for significant mental development.

War Party


War, hunting, and fishing are the chief pursuits of the men of the warring tribes; agriculture of the more domesticated. Among the Indians found in North America by Europeans, the women performed almost all the manual labor and burden-bearing. They carried on their limited agriculture, which consisted in the production of maize or Indian corn, beans, squashes, potatoes, and tobacco. They manufactured the implements of war, and for hunting and fishing; made mats, and skin and feather clothing, canoes, ornaments of the teeth and claws of beasts, and of shells and porcupine-quills; performed all domestic drudgery, and constructed the lodges of the bark of trees or the hides of beasts. Rude figures of animate and inanimate objects carved in wood or stone, or molded in clay, and picture-writing on the inner bark of trees or the skins of beasts, or cut upon rocks, with rude ornamented pottery, were the extent of their accomplishments in the arts of design and of literature. The picture-writing was sometimes used in musical notation, and contained the burden of their songs.


They believed in a good and Supreme Being, and in an Evil Spirit, and recognized the existence of inferior good and evil spirits. They believed in a future state of existence, and there were no infidels among them. Superstition among swayed them powerfully, and special men, called “medicine-men,” were their physicians, priests, and prophets, who, on all occasions, used incantations. Christian missionaries have labored among them in many places, from the time the Spaniards and Frenchmen settled in America until now.


There was not a semblance of a national government among the Indians when the Europeans came, except that of the IROQUOIS CONFEDERACY. Their language was varied by more than a hundred dialects, and they were divided into many distinct families or tribes, under a kind of patriarchal rule. Each family had its armorial sign, called a totem, such as an eagle, a bear, or a deer, by which it was designated. The civil head of a tribe was called a sachem, and the military leader a chief. Those official honors were gained sometimes by inheritance, but more frequently by personal merit. Such was the simple government, seldom disobeyed, that controlled about 1,000,000 inhabitants of the present domain of the United States, which extends over nearly twenty-five degrees of latitude and about sixty degrees of longitude.

Geographical Distribution

There seem to have been only eight radically distinct nations known to the earlier settlers—namely, the Algonquian, Huron – Iroquois, Cherokee, Catawba, Uchee, Natchez, Mobilian or Floridian, and Dakota or Sioux. More recently, other distinct nations have been discovered—namely, the Athabascas , Sahaptins, Chinooks, Shoshones, and Attakapas. Others will doubtless be found. The Algonquians were a large family occupying all Canada, New England, a part of New York and Pennsylvania ; all New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia; eastern North Carolina above Cape Fear, a large part of Kentucky and Tennessee, and all north and west of those States east of the Mississippi. Within the folds of this nation were the Huron-Iroquois, occupying a greater portion of Canada south of the Ottawa River, and the region between Lake Ontario and Lakes Erie and Huron, nearly all of the State of New York, and a part of Pennsylvania and Ohio along the southern shores of Lake Erie. Detached from the main body were the Tuscaroras and a few smaller families dwelling in southern Virginia and the upper part of North Carolina. Five families of the Huron-Iroquois, dwelling within the limits of the State of New York, formed the famous Iroquois Confederacy of Five Nations. The Cherokees inhabited the fertile and picturesque region where the mountain ranges that form the watershed between the Atlantic and Mississippi melt in the lowlands that border the Gulf of Mexico. The Catawbas were their neighbors on the east, and dwelt upon the borders of the Yadkin and Catawba rivers, on both sides of the boundary-line between North and South Carolina. The Uchees were a small family in the pleasant land along the Oconee and the head-waters of the Ogeechee and Chattahoochee, in Georgia, and touched the Cherokees. They were only a remnant of a once powerful tribe, when the Europeans came, and they claimed to be more ancient than the surrounding people. The Natchez occupied a territory on the eastern side of the Mississippi, extending northeastward from the site of the city of Natchez along the Pearl River to the head-waters of the Chickasaw. They claimed to be older than the Uchees, and, like others of the Gulf region, they worshipped the sun and fire, and made sacrifices to the source of terrestrial light. The Mobilians or Floridians occupied a domain next in extent to that of the Algonquians. It stretched along the Atlantic coast from the mouth of the Cape Fear River to the extremity of the Florida peninsula, and westward along the Gulf of Mexico about 600 miles to the Mississippi River. They also held jurisdiction up that stream as far as the mouth of the Ohio. The domain included parts of South Carolina, the whole of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, all of Georgia not occupied by the Cherokees and Uchees, and portions of Tennessee and Kentucky. The nation was divided into three confederacies, each powerful and independent, like our separate States. They were known respectively as the Muscogee or Creek (the most powerful), the Choitan, and the Chickasaw. The heart of the Creek family was in Alabama.

Under the general title of Dakotas or Sioux have been grouped a large number of tribes west of the Great Lakes and Mississippi, with whom the earlier French explorers came in contact. These, speaking dialects of the same language, apparently, were regarded as parts of one nation. They inhabited the domain stretching northward from the Arkansas River to the western tributary of Lake Winnipeg, and westward along all that line to the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. They have been arranged into four classes: 1. The Winnebagoes, situated between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, within the domain of the Algonquians.  2. The Assiniboins, or Sioux proper, who formed the more northerly part of the nation. 3. The Southern Sioux, who were seated in the country between the Platte and Arkansas rivers.  4. The Sahaptins include the Nez Perces and Walla Wallas, extending from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, in Oregon and Washington. Beyond these are the more powerful Chinooks. They embraced numerous tribes, from the mouth of the Columbia River to the Grand Dalles. The Shoshones comprise tribes inhabiting the territory around the head-waters of the Columbia and Missouri rivers; the Comanches, extending from the headwaters of the Brazos to those of the Arkansas; families in Utah and Texas, and several tribes in California. The Attakapas and Chitemachas, in Texas, have languages that enter into no known group.

Condition of the Indians

According to official reports, the Indian population in 1904 was, approximately, about 270,000, nearly all of whom were partially or absolutely under the control of the national government. There were 180,000 Indians on reservations, or at schools under control of the Indian Bureau, leaving about 90,000 in the five civilized tribes of Indian Territory and in New York State, the former numbering about 84,500, and the latter, 5,232. Besides these, there were 32,567 taxable and self-sustaining Indians who had become citizens of the United States. The expensive and complicated machinery for the management of Indian affairs has been much in the way of the elevation of the race in the scale of civilization, and has produced much evil by creating irritation, jealousy, and universal lack of faith in the white race. These irritations for a long time kept a large portion of the Indians in a state of chronic hostility, and whole tribes utterly refused all overtures of the government to accept its protection and fostering care. In 1880 it was estimated that the number of potentially hostile Indians was fully 60,000. In 1891 the condition of affairs had been much improved. Among many tribes the introduction of agriculture, schools, and churches had been attended with the happiest results. There were 24,357 pupils enrolled in the reservation, non-reservation, and day schools, besides 3,506 in institutes and public schools, and these schools were supported at an expense of $3.522,950. There is a tendency in most of the tribes to engage in settled pursuits and accept citizenship. See also names of various tribes.

As you study the resources on this site, I invite you to keep the following in mind.  The Indians, or Native Americans were here first.  This land was their land; they lived on it, lived off it, and respected it.  The Westward Expansion of the United States effectively destroyed their territory, and their way of life. Perhaps most disturbing . . . we destroyed their way of life, without welcoming them into our way of life.  We isolated them on Indian Reservations, and did not effectively invite them them into our culture.  The scars of these mistakes are still painfully visible today in the Indian culture.